‘Low bridge, everybody down’: A fascinating talk about the Erie Canal

– Photo from the Library of Congress
Locked in: Lake Erie, where the Erie Canal starts, is about 570 feet above sea level; in Albany, where the canal ends, it’s about 2 feet above sea level. In between, harnessing gravity, are 35 locks, or gates, separating sections of the canal so that the upper level does not flood the lower level. The locks allow boats to pass from one section and water level to a different section and water level. 

NEW SCOTLAND – Use of the Erie Canal today is far from what was intended when it opened in 1825, surpassed by cargo ships, trains, planes, and trucks. Its main function today is recreation and tourism although the canal’s non-tourism economic impact on the Capital Region is about $3.3 billion, according to a study from the New York State Canal Corporation.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the Erie Canal to New York’s economic and social history. Yes, it was a commercial windfall for some but for many it became a superhighway that moved people, goods, and ideas.

On Wednesday, June 6, at the Clarksville Historical Society, Brad Utter, a senior historian and curator from the New York State Museum, gave it a shot. He was there to discuss the first and seconds phases of the museum’s exhibit: “Enterprising Waters: New York’s Erie Canal.” The second phase is due to open this fall.

Utter spoke with The Enterprise before his presentation.

“There are a lot of arguments that New York City was on its way to surpass Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore as the center of commerce for the country, but the canal solidified that as far as commercial supremacy is concerned – and population supremacy as well,” Utter told The Enterprise.

“The completion of the Erie Canal spurred the first great westward movement of American settlers, gave access to the rich land and resources west of the Appalachians and made New York the preeminent commercial city in the United States,” a state history of the canal said.

Within 15 years of the Erie Canal’s opening, according to the state history, New York was the busiest port in America, greater than Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans – combined.

Calling for a canal

Calls for “internal improvements,” Utter said, began in the early 1700s, when government officials recognized that better waterways were needed to increase trade with the interior of the country, today known as the Midwest.

George Washington saw that, as settlers moved out past the Appalachian Mountains and along the Great Lakes, there were no economic ties to the east, Utter said. Those new settlers could trade with the Spanish in New Orleans or the British in Canada. George Washington, as well as others, called for a “bond of union,” a commercial connection between East and West.

In 1792, The Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, with Philip Schuyler in charge, was incorporated in New York. The state, Utter said, bought stock in the private company as it set about improving natural waterways from Schenectady to Rome and north to Oswego. The venture had limited success, he said, but it did show that there was a need for a manmade, land-cut canal, and that only a government could build a project that expensive and complex.

Around this time, Utter said, the federal government had surplus funds, and there was a proposal to make “internal improvements,” which would have helped fund the canal. But Thomas Jefferson had thought it would have been unconstitutional, Utter said.

The federal government was still very much an experiment, he said. “They were trying to figure out what the role of government was – an argument that still continues to this day, but today, we take for granted that government builds our roads.”

In 1811, DeWitt Clinton – ultimately, the canal’s greatest champion – then a state senator, introduced a bill to appoint a commission to explore routes for a canal across New York State, but war got in the way

The War of 1812, Utter said, solidified the need for a canal.

The New York-Canada border was a main front of the war, Utter said, but it was very difficult to get soldiers and supplies there. There weren’t any population centers that far west, he said. It cost more to ship a cannon to Buffalo then it did to produce one, he said. “That was a big-eye opener for a lot of people.”

After the war had ended, calls for a canal were renewed under the auspices of protecting New York’s border. By 1816, Clinton persuaded the legislature to finance the canal as a state project; in 1817, he was elected governor, and construction began the same year.

Construction and innovation

Cleaved and blasted into existence, the Erie Canal was a product of amateurs and ingenuity, and, when complete, was an unprecedented engineering achievement.

When construction began in 1817, excavating and earthmoving machines had not yet been invented, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers; the  the pick, level, spade, wheelbarrow, and wagon were the only equipment available.

But before tools and equipment were needed, engineers had to survey for, and design, the project – but, “there wasn’t an educated and experienced civil engineer in the country,” according to a history of the Canal by the The Bronx County Historical Society. “New York’s Canal Commissioners had nowhere else to put their faith than in the largely self-taught surveyors and engineering novices of upstate New York.” The engineers learned by doing on a grand scale.

Necessity led to a number of inventions:

– The plow and scraper, a piece of equipment pulled by oxen or horse, that chopped up the ground so that roots could be easily removed;

– The stump-puller, which was made up of two wheels connected by an axle, and in the middle of the axle was a third wheel that a chain was wound around, which was then wrapped around a stump and pulled from the ground by horse or oxen; and

– The modern wheelbarrow was invented during the building of the canal, in Rome, Utter said; prior to that it was a box on a wheel. The newly-designed cart had rounded edges so that it could be loaded and dumped easily.

Lockport, on the western end of the canal, Utter said, is an amazing story.

Three brothers purchased three plots of land in that area, knowing that the canal would have to pass through one of those three plots, he said, “so one brother got real lucky.” Within five to 10 years, an entire city has sprung up, he said.

Seven miles of solid rock had to be blasted through in order to use Lake Erie as a water source for the western part of the canal, Utter said. This involved a lot of blasting, for which gunpowder and not dynamite was used. Utter said that a hole was drilled in the rock – which used a special tip that was invented at the time – and then “workers would pack it with gunpowder, light it, and run.”  

A special crane was invented at the time, he said, in order to lift the giant hunks of blasted rock.

Work at Lockport was dangerous, and, like other dangerous sites on the canal, it was packed with Irishmen. Utter pointed out that, when construction of the canal began, in 1817, it was locals who built it. It wasn’t until the 1820s, he said, when Irish immigrants came in and were sent to most dangerous worksites on the canal.

When it was enlarged, between 1836 and 1862, Utter said, that corresponds with the Irish Potato Famine and the influx of Irish immigrants. “The Irish were heavily involved in the enlargement for sure,” he said.

When it was completed in 1825, the canal was 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, traversed 363 miles from Buffalo to Albany, and cost the state $7 million. In 2012, according to a report funded by the state’s Canal Corporation and the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, the canal’s cost would have been $125 million; today, adjusting for inflation, its cost would be $136,250,000. (An article from the Smithsonian Magazine pegs the cost to build the canal today at over $140 billion).

The Burned-Over district

In the early 19th Century, after the country declared its independence from the king of England and his church, the First Amendment gave Americans the right to practice religion in whatever way they desired.  

Known as the Second Great Awakening, this Protestant religious movement attracted and converted millions to a throng of faiths.

In New York, the Second Great Awakening manifested itself in the Burned-Over District, so called because the area’s residents had been worn out by repeated waves of religious enthusiasm, which first sprouted up along the Erie Canal, as settlers from New England sought farmland that wasn’t rocks, and then moved into the westernmost parts on the state.

“These settlers are coming from New England, but they are also all young for the most part,” Utter said. It wasn’t the old, entrenched society they left behind.

“So, you’ve got young vibrant people with an ever-changing and growing economy, and you’ve got people who live there already who now, all of a sudden, have access to Eastern culture and goods that they had been living without; living a frontier lifestyle,” Utter said, “And so, all of this chaos and change was ripe for the Second Great Awakening.”

The Burned-Over District nurtured a number of religions.

There were, what are considered today mainline religions such as Baptists and Methodists, but also a number of nonconformist sects like the Shakers, so-called for their inability to be still during a service, and known as the religion that didn’t allow its members to have sex. But, as the Ken Burns documentary, “The Shakers,” points out: “Seventy-five years before the emancipation of the slaves and 150 years before women began voting in America, the Shakers were practicing social, sexual, economic, and spiritual equality for all members.”

The women’s movement, Utter said, started in a canal town, Seneca Falls, with the first woman’s rights convention in 1848; the Burned-Over District was also an incubator for the abolitionist movement as well as the temperance movement.

On the other end of the spectrum from the Shakers was the Oneida Community, a utopian religious sect that, long before Woodstock, preached free love.

The Mormon faith began in the Burned-Over District as well; Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion, worked on the Erie Canal, Utter said, as did Brigham Young. Utter said that an invoice to Young for painting some canal structures will be on display in the museum exhibit’s second phase.

Then there are present-day religions whose genesis can be traced back to this period; Adventism, for example, which today, according to the Pew Research Center, has 20 to 25 million members worldwide, has it origins in Millerism.

Millerism’s founder, William Miller, began preaching in 1831 that the world would end 1843. When it didn’t, he gave himself a little more time and said that the Second Coming of Christ would happen in 1844.


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